This is a very short book (about 100 pages) that contains so much. At a basic level, it’s about a young woman, Makina, who crosses the border from Mexico to America to find her brother and bring him home. It’s about language, communication, immigration, borders, and family.
It’s also about the cost of things. Makina, who often seems adept enough to navigate the world without too high a price, still pays nonetheless. Her brother pays a price for help and papers. Their mother ultimately pays a price to try and get him home. Everything they do comes with risks, whether it’s making deals with criminals, avoiding gunshots on the border, or simply the temptation of the new in the north. Often these risks are not immediately apparent, as Makina is extremely independent and doesn’t dwell on them. But also because of her own ethics. She is a messenger, and remains neutral about the messages she carries:
You don’t lift other people’s petticoats. You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business. You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to let rot.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.
And so, for example, it’s easy to forget for a moment just how dangerous it for Makina to smuggle something for a criminal over the border, when she doesn’t question whether she should, or what might come of it, combined with how relatively assured she is talking to them.
Language and how you use language is extremely important in Signs. Makina is good at her job on the switchboard not just because she speaks all three languages needed, but because she’s good at communicating. She knows how to go and get people for a call without panicking them when it’s bad news, how to interpret what are couple are really saying to each other, and, importantly for her survival in the world, how to hold her own with every person she meets.
It’s also about how language evolves, particularly at borders and particularly for people who have straddled those borders:
Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and and the wonderment of a new people. And then they speak. They speak an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable; a hinge pivoting between two like but distant souls, and then two more, and then two more, never exactly the same ones; something that serves as a link
I love the writing style; it’s lyrical and full of metaphor but not in an over-written way. It has a beautiful combination of the familiar and the new and disorientating, which is absolutely fitting for this story. As a translation, this is partly Herrera, partly Dillman’s interpretation. She writes a really interesting translator’s note at the end about the process of translation and how and why she chose certain words which is well worth a read. I wish I knew Spanish so I could read it again in its original form, just to see if it feels the same.
It ends ambiguously but, at the same time, I don’t think it’s that ambiguous at all. The novel opens with Makina narrowly avoiding falling into a sinkhole, and ends in a basement with a sense of unease. That closed circle, combined with the title, makes me think things won’t end well for Makina. But then, maybe I’m just pessimistic. The basement is airy, it doesn’t smell as she expects, so maybe the unease and her feeling that “I’ve been skinned” is merely her unease at a decision to stay on the north side of the border (if that’s the decision she made!), and consequently having to change her name, her history, for papers. Either way, it’s ‘the end of the world’ in one sense or another. I guess it depends on what you interpret the ‘falling in the hole’ to be. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ending if you’ve read it.
I’m really looking forward to Herrera’s other books coming out with And Other Stories soon.